Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Justify the title of Heart of Darkness with the help of contents.  

Expert Answers info

huntress eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2015

write373 answers

starTop subjects are Literature and Law and Politics

Heart of Darkness is a title with multiple layers. On the most superficial layer, it refers to the continent of Africa where the story (within the story) takes place. Marlow speaks of the how, as he motored the steamboat into the continent, "the reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return" as they "penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." "The steamer," he says, "toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy." The continent itself is forbidding to a "civilized" man, being thick with impenetrable foliage, of "massive, immense trees" that close onto the river. 

Another type of "darkness" they are penetrating is the natives. He has cannibals working on the boat with him, which he says are "fine fellows...in their place." As they chugged along--and their pace seemed sluggish indeed--they would encounter "a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy." It seemed like they were among "prehistoric man," or in a "madhouse." The cultures and customs and language were all foreign to Marlow, and he reacted with the characteristic anxiety of a "civilized" man. To him, the Africans he worked with and saw we not only dark in flesh, but dark in custom, culture, and spirit. 

If we peel away the next layer of the onion, we begin to see that the "heart of darkness" Conrad is really exposing is that of the "civilized" Company men who live among the natives, enslave them, and abuse them. At one of his first stops upriver, he docks and walks toward a shade to cool off and finds, much to his horror:

black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. ...This was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.

Conrad immediately compares this scene with the figure of the Company accountant who is, clean, immaculately attired, and keeps his books in "apple pie order." He complains when the natives speak or move: "When one has got to make correct entries," he says, "one comes...

(The entire section contains 970 words.)

Unlock This Answer Now

check Approved by eNotes Editorial